Record majority of trade unions back national deal
Delegates attending a special conference of unions affiliated to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions voted by a record majority in favour of the new national agreement in November 2008. The trade union representatives reached consensus on the so-called ‘Transitional Agreement’ under the ‘Towards 2016’ framework and were followed by the main employer organisation, the Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation, which also voted in favour of the agreement.
At a special delegate conference of trade unions belonging to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) on 17 November 2008, the delegates voted by a large majority of 305 to 36 votes in favour of the new national deal, the Transitional Agreement (2.8Mb PDF), under the framework of the Towards 2016 (2.86Mb PDF) national social partnership agreement (IE0606019I). The vote was underpinned by record majority ballots by union members in many cases (IE0810019I). Significantly, the largest trade union, the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU) – which has tended to carry the burden of supporting these centralised agreements in the private sector – was joined by several other private sector trade unions that had in the past voted against other national deals.
The deal provides for a pay rise of 6% over 21 months, with an extra 0.5% for low-paid workers, payable after a three-month freeze in the private sector and after 11 months in the public sector. A range of non-pay commitments, largely centring around employment rights issues, are also included.
Increased support for national agreement
Apart from the Unite trade union, which is based in the UK, only the small Guinness Staff Union (GSU) registered a ‘no’ vote for the agreement. Until now, it had been taken for granted that these agreements require the backing of the biggest general union, SIPTU, and usually the support of the largest public sector union, the Irish Municipal Public and Civil Trade Union (IMPACT). On this occasion, however, either of these two powerful trade unions could have rejected the agreement and it would still have been passed comfortably.
The level of acceptance within SIPTU was substantially higher than the previous such vote in 2006, with 80% of members backing the deal on this occasion. This is significant, as the SIPTU vote on the first pay deal under Towards 2016 was about 70%, which was considered a comfortable margin at that time. This means that two thirds of the trade union’s 270,000 members who work in the private sector have increased their support for centralised deals. The union’s public sector membership – which comprises one third of the total membership – also gave strong backing to this agreement.
Private sector unions, such as the Irish Bank Officials’ Association (IBOA) and the retail union, Mandate, reversed their opposition to the first pay deal (2006–2007) under Towards 2016. Public sector unions, such as the Civil and Public Services Union (CPSU) and the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI), also reversed their positions. In fact, CPSU members even went against the advice of their own national executive committee, instead supporting the personal position adopted by their General Secretary, Blair Horan, by voting for the deal by a majority of 60% to 40% votes.
Mandate members backed the national agreement by a staggering 90%, which is particularly notable considering that the trade union did not even enter the social partnership process in 2006. The union mostly represents lower paid workers, and it had hoped that by staying out of the first pay deal under Towards 2016, it could make gains by selecting key employers and negotiating above average deals in what were better economic times. While Mandate has had some limited success in this regard, economic circumstances on this occasion were decidedly against this strategy.
Employers also vote in favour of agreement
Members of the leading employer organisation, the Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation (IBEC), opted once again for the certainty that these agreements provide. However, it is widely believed that many employers may not be able to afford the terms of the agreement, and that others will formally plead ‘inability to pay’, which they can do under the terms of the deal. Such claims are subject to an adjudication process overseen by the Labour Relations Commission (LRC). Indeed, it seems that even the government cannot now afford to pay the terms agreed (IE0812039I).
Meanwhile, the Construction Industry Federation (CIF) rejected the agreement for the first time in the country’s 21-year history of social partnership. CIF had sought a 12-month pay freeze, which was nine months more than the three-month pause agreed for the private sector. Trade unions in this sector, where terms and conditions are governed by existing legally binding registered agreements, are now free to submit claims under free collective bargaining.
Employment rights issues
Important non-pay commitments have been made under the Transitional Agreement, particularly in the area of employment rights, and were warmly welcomed by the trade unions (IE0807039I). The government has an added incentive to press ahead with these commitments, especially if it wants to hold a second Lisbon referendum in 2009. The new agreement will allow it to point to progress on employment protection, which has always been a cornerstone of the EU project.
Brian Sheehan, IRN Publishing